Baroque case study and meditation: Pietro da Cortona's Christ Appearing to Mary Magadalene

Pietro_da_Cortona_-_Cristo_appare_a_Maria_MaddalenaI will post an article next week about Christian environmentalism. I believe that this scene, portrayed in this beautiful example of 17th baroque painting, in which Mary Magdalene sees Christ in the garden and mistaking him for the gardener gives us insights into the Christian understanding of man's relationship with the rest of creation, and so to a Christian environmentalism. You can read how when it comes out on Monday. Here is the account from St John's gospel, Chapter 20: 11 Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb 12 and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot. 13 They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?” “They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” 14 At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus. 15 He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?” Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”). 17 Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”



In this painting, painted around 1645 by the Italian Pietro da Cortona, he uses the classic elements of the baroque style, the deep shadow contrasted with the light, which represents, in this case literally, the Light, that overcomes the darkness. He ensures that the main focus is on the person of Christ by retaining the sharpest focus and the most colour around him and his garments. Much of the parts in the periphery of the painting are painted in monochrome (in one colour, in this case sepia) and are blurred. This draws the eye to the most important part of the painting that is lighter, more coloured, and in sharper focus.. The only other part which is in light is the upper body and face of Mary Magdalene. The deep shadow and murky light in the rest of the composition, which is so prevalent in baroque painting (the style that originated in the 17th century) is appropriate for this - we are told by John that this took place 'early on the first day of the week' that is Sunday. The medium in which it is painted - oil on canvas - is ideal for for this shadowy light. It allow the smooth blending of tone and colour over long distances (in contrast with egg tempera, the medium of icons which is very difficult to blend).

All of these stylistic elements are derived from a theology whereby the artist is seeking to represent heavenly and supernatural truths via the visual. In order to do so he does not paint photographically, but deliberately alters the appearances from what is seen so that we infer invisible truths also. The theology behind the style of baroque painting and the dynamic by which we pray with it in the liturgy is described in detail in my book, the Way of Beauty.

The artist, Pietro da Cortona was one of the leading artists of the Italian baroque and was seen in his time as a rival in fame and reputation of Bernini (who is more well known today). Like Bernini he was an architect as well as an artist (Bernini being primarily a sculptor). He lived from 1596-1669.  Below we see the church of Santi Luca e Martina in Rome, which was designed by Cortona.


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My book the Way of Beauty is available from Angelico Press and Amazon.

JAY W. RICHARDS, Editor of the Stream and Lecturer at the Business School fo the Catholic University of America said about it: “In The Way of Beauty, David Clayton offers us a mini-liberal arts education. The book is a counter-offensive against a culture that so often seems to have capitulated to a ‘will to ugliness.’ He shows us the power in beauty not just where we might expect it — in the visual arts and music — but in domains as diverse as math, theology, morality, physics, astronomy, cosmology, and liturgy. But more than that, his study of beauty makes clear the connection between liturgy, culture, and evangelization, and offers a way to reinvigorate our commitment to the Good, the True, and the Beautiful in the twenty-first century. I am grateful for this book and hope many will take its lessons to heart.”